All joking aside, this is actually a serious issue. A child who bites soon creates an environment filled with wary and worried caregivers, siblings, parents, and peers. A biter may soon find he has few playmates, potentially fueling an already difficult situation. But is it the child’s fault? Not exactly.
Children age two and under may bite due to teething. Biting from a toddler or preschooler, however, is typically due to anger, exhaustion, or frustration. Many times, these children either lack the language skills to be able to say what’s bothering them, are seeking attention, or are imitating behavior they have seen. Zero to Three recommends never identifying the child as “a biter” as this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the child is called “a biter” they take on that persona and continue to bite because they figure that’s who they are! Do, however, analyze the situation prior to the biting incident. Was the child over-stimulated? Was the play too rough? Were others taunting the child? Was the child over-tired? Any of these, and others, can be triggers for biting.
Once you’ve identified what the child’s triggers are, you may be able to catch the child before he bites. If so, try these strategies:
- Redirect the child’s attention to a different activity
- Remind the child that if he is frustrated he needs to use his words
- Simply state “remember – no biting”
- Ask if he needs help
But, if you are unable to catch the child before he’s bitten someone, try these strategies:
- Firmly state “no biting – biting hurts!” and remove the child from the situation
- Attend to the child that has been bitten
- Go back to the child that bit
- Ask him to look at the face of the child he bit and describe how he thinks that child is feeling. This helps create empathy and helps him understand cause and effect.
- Talk with him about what he could have done differently. The success of this strategy, of course, depends on the child’s language skills and emotional development. Make sure to help him come up with 2 or 3 things he could have done instead of biting.
- Redirect the child to an activity that will help calm him
After a biting incident, it is important to continue to monitor the child to watch for similar triggering events. If you notice that playing with blocks always leads to frustration, and sometimes biting, try to help the child learn behaviors and strategies that will prevent that frustration. Or, give him words to use to express when he has gotten too frustrated. However, the MOST IMPORTANT THING to do is to REINFORCE POSITIVE BEHAVIOR! When you see the child playing nicely, using words to express feelings, or using self-calming strategies, make sure to say something! Reinforcing the positive behavior is a sure-fire way of eliminating the negative behavior.
Let’s use the block situation I mentioned earlier as an example. Let’s say Keisha is playing with Brandon and they are stacking blocks side by side to see who can go the highest. There aren’t many blocks left and both Keisha and Brandon are scrambling to find more. Brandon’s friend Jacob decides to help find another block for Brandon, which makes Keisha feel frustrated. She yells “that’s not fair!” Her yelling gets the attention of Hunter who doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but sees a block right behind Brandon, so he hands it to him, thinking he’s being helpful. But that’s more than Keisha can bear, so she bites Hunter on the arm as he hands Brandon the block. Hunter is stunned and cries out in pain, having no idea why Keisha decided to bite him!
Being a savvy caregiver, you instantly tell Keisha “no biting – biting hurts!” You ask her to go sit down and wait for you. You calmly walk over to Hunter to help him wash off his arm and put a Band-Aid on the bite. You help him get settled in a new game and then head over to Keisha. Sitting beside Keisha (not towering over her with a wagging finger), you remind her that biting is not allowed. You ask her how she thinks Hunter felt. Ask her how she feels. Then ask her what she could have done differently to express her frustration. Make sure to thank her for coming up with some good ideas. And make sure she understands that she can ask for help if she feels frustrated enough to bite.
Later in the day, you notice Keisha playing nicely. Make sure to comment on how much you appreciate the way she is playing. At the end of the day, though, you can tell she is very tired. She stumbled over a chair and dropped her box of crayons all over the floor. Brandon rushes in to grab one of her crayons and you see that “look” on Keisha’s face. Immediately, you walk over to Keisha and Brandon, asking Brandon to return the crayon and asking Keisha if she needs any help using her words.
One Final Point.
Children who bite can become ostracized by other children. That’s not really surprising–no one wants to get bit. As you work with the child to help him find other avenues for his emotions, make sure to also subtly encourage others to play with the child or try encouraging group activities that will enable the child to be included. With a repeat biter, this may take some time though. And, this should only be an active goal once you are certain the biting has stopped.
As always, if the behavior seems severe, constant, or occurs beyond age 3 ½ or 4, seeking professional advice would be a good idea. For other good ideas, check out the Zero to Three website on the topic at: http://www.zerotothree.org or the American Psychological Association information at: https://www.apa.org
Editor’s Note: While we refer to “he,” boys and girls can both bite, as this not a gender specific issue. Our choice is purely stylistic for the sake of clarity and consistency.
Debbie Farr, Ph.D. Debbie received her Ph.D. in family studies and human development, her master’s in counseling and her BA in psychology. She has worked in various capacities, serving children and families for over 30 years, but her passion is in helping parents be proactive rather than reactive. To that end, Debbie offers workshops, presentations, and trainings for parents as well as professionals, blending education with support and coaching. Debbie has worked as a director for a family resource center, worked in numerous schools in several parts of the country, and taught at the university level. Currently she is working with SitterCycle’s positive discipline strategies and is putting the finishing touches on her new company, Flourishing Families. She is also getting ready to launch an “Ask Dr. Debbie” column in a local newspaper. She can be reached at email@example.com.